It was the mid-80s, and I was a young man on the verge (at least in my mind) of getting old. It was Christmas time, which made the passing of youth that much more painful; I remembered the year I found both a basketball and a bb gun under the tree, and all the bright promise that lay ahead of me as a gun-toting sports hero, blasting into some one-gas station town like Knob Noster, Mo. to shoot free throws and squirrels.
But now I was, as Chuck Berry might have said, almost grown. My boss had said no vacations until the end of the year, there were too many big deals to close. My girlfriend had taken off to see her parents with the suggestion that when she came back, our relationship would be over. I was alone in Boston, and none of my local friends had invited me over for Christmas dinner.
After feeling sorry for myself for a while, I harkened back to the teachings of Christ: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what” . . . wait, that was President Kennedy’s speechwriter. Jesus said “Truly I tell you, whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). It was time for my annual trip to Boston’s principal homeless shelter, to give something back to those less fortunate than myself.
I packed up a box of clothes and headed down to the South End, Boston’s counterpart to the Bowery in New York. Here is where those who have dropped out of or been eliminated from the rat race of capitalism had historically congregated because of the area’s cheap single-room occupancy housing. The yuppie condo boom was still a few years in the future, so the area’s charming urban blight was unsullied by low crime rates and highly-educated newcomers who recycled their wine bottles instead of throwing them in the streets.
As I approached the Pine Street Inn, an old Dickensian hell-hole that would be abandoned in a few years for a new Dickensian hell-hole, I saw two familiar faces—Mitch, a grizzled white man with tobacco-stained teeth, and Tyrone, a non-grizzled black man who was missing a front tooth.
“Well hello governor,” Tyrone said. I don’t know how he does it, but he always maintains a positive attitude towards life. Maybe the cheap “bum” wine he and Mitch drink all day has something to do with it.
“You dropping off some Chriffmuff presents?” Tyrone said, his tongue poking through the hole where a tooth once lived.
“Sure am,” I said. I looked at Mitch and couldn’t stop myself from clucking my tongue. “You know, guys, the economy’s booming . . .”
“Talkin’ Reaganomics!” Tyrone sang in a fair imitation of the “B” side of Johnny Taylor’s semi-hit “What About My Love?”
“If you’d only spruce yourselves up a bit, I’m sure you could find a job.”
Mitch looked at Tyrone for a second, who returned his bemused gaze—then the two burst out laughing. “Why the hell would I want a job for?” Mitch said. “Last job I had they wouldn’t let me drink between nine and five. What kinda crazy rule is that?”
I just shook my head. “So you don’t want first dibs on my swag? I’ve got some nice transition-to-self esteem items in here.”
“What you got—‘cause I know you too well,” Tyrone said, “is this year’s power ties you gettin’ rid of ‘cause they got soup stains on ‘em.”
I blushed a little. “You’re only half-right,” I said. “Some have chili stains.”
“Man, I told you not to be eatin’ chili at a business lunch!” Tyrone snapped, and I had to admit he was right.
“You know, come to think of it, we didn’t get the Arabesque Modeling Clay account.”
“See—I was right,” Tyrone said, and a bit smugly I might add.
“Okay, well if you guys are all set, I’m gonna let everybody else have a crack at ‘em,” I said.
“Go ahead,” Mitch said. “Check back with us next Christmas—we’re on sabbatical this year.”
“Right,” I said, laughing at his facetiousness.
“No, seriously—it’s a great way to refresh an employee who’s become burned out by mindless routine.”
“I’ll tell that to my boss,” I said, and I headed for the entrance.
The Inn keeps a well-manned front desk for security reasons and so that donors don’t have to make their way through the smell and visible misery of masculine failure and hopelessness.
“Don’t tell me, let me guess,” said the young man on duty. “You’re here to make a donation, not to spend the night—correct?”
“I have a graduate degree in social work. What have you got for us?”
“Here, take a look.”
The kid began to paw through my discards. “This white-on-blue shirt—you’re giving that away?”
“Somebody told me it makes too much of a fashion statement for a junior person like me.”
“Okay—what else? What’s wrong with these tassel loafers?”
“They’re starting to pinch in the toe. I figured I should give them away before I busted through the front.”
“A lot of our ‘clients’”—his air of dubiety, not mine—“could do with an upgrade to their casual wear. Anything else?” he asked as he dug down to the bottom of the box, then said “Holy cow—look at this!”
The security guard came over for a peek, and shared the young man’s enthusiasm.
“Those are some nice power ties, man!” he said to me, then to the attendant: “You don’t think I . . .”
“Forget it, pal,” the kid said. “All donated items are solely for the use of the under-privileged, not the moderately-privileged like you.”
“That’s a sucky policy,” the guard said, then moved swiftly to calm a bearded man who claimed the Pope was hiding under his bed. “How many times I gotta tell you–the Pope left town in 1979!”
“You want a receipt for tax purposes?” the attendant asked.
I looked off into the middle distance, and I saw a future in which an Ivy League-trained lawyer who would someday rise to become Secretary of State would take a deduction for underwear of her husband—who would become President—that the couple donated to charity. But that someday of unalloyed generosity had not yet come.
“No, no, I don’t need it thanks. In my mind, it’s not really charity unless you’re willing to forego the $3.16 difference in your income taxes that a box of clothes you don’t want any more will make.”
“Yes we wrote off his underpants, but they were in good shape.”
“Thanks, man,” the attendant said. “That money will help pay down America’s deficit, and that means more money for social service workers like me.”
“My pleasure,” I said, and we knuckle-bumped—way ahead of our time on that score, and I walked out into the cold December air.
I passed Mitch and Tyrone—they were arguing about who was entitled to the “spit hit,” the backwash in the bottom of the bottle—and stopped for a moment. I stared off into the deep, blue-black night sky. I was feeling somehow—incomplete.
Maybe I should have gotten a receipt, I said to myself. It would be embarrassing if I came back next April, trying to reconstruct my donation. Somehow just giving useless crap away had left me—unfulfilled. What I wanted, what I needed, was human companionship on Christmas Eve, the one night of the year—other than New Year’s Eve, and maybe Valentine’s Day—when nobody wants to be alone.
Visit colorful Lower Washington Street!
But where was I going to go? Christmas Eve is also the one night of the year when everything is closed—it being Saturday night made it doubly worse. I walked up Lower Washington Street—usually a festival of lights and gaily-dressed hookers—and saw nothing but darkened restaurants. Even Fuddruckers—the restaurant chain that was born to create the World’s Greatest Hamburgers™—was shuttered.
And then I noticed it—a star in the West, shining brightly over Tower Records. And I heard the strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” What did it mean? Was I supposed to “ransom captive I-i-israel?” I checked my wallet. I had sixty bucks—you couldn’t even buy one of the Golan Heights with that kind of money.
Still, I was led onward, as if by some magnetic force, through the darkened streets, towards the MBTA’s Green Line. I paid with a token—and not a token token, but a token that was as good as any of the others, even though it wasn’t the brightest token in the fare box.
“Stupid car crossed in front of me while I was eatin’ my donut!”
“Where is this train going?” I asked the conductor, who had a donut, a cup of coffee and a copy of the Boston Herald spread out in front of him in order to insure passenger safety.
“This is a ‘C’ car,” he said, not looking up from his paper.
And so it became clear. I was headed to Brookline, the clean little disproportionately-Jewish town I’d lived in during graduate school, where if you ain’t pareve, you ain’t nothin’. I took it as a sign.
I rode in silence for awhile until the driver said “This is where you wanna get off probably” as we hit the intersection of Beacon Street and Harvard Ave. “Thanks,” I said, and stumbled off, zombie-like, to an unknown fate.
I turned right, as if drawn by some magnetic force, and then I saw it; a star shining brightly above Ho-Toy Chinese Restaurant, another atop Mr. Chang’s Kitchen, a third blinking its welcome from Sichuan Gourmet. It was like a Henny Youngman joke: how do you know you’re in a Jewish neighborhood—all the Chinese restaurants. And every one open for business!
Why didn’t I think of it before? And what mysterious force had drawn me hither—or is it “thither”?
An embarrassment of riches—like finding a three-pack of gold, frankincense and myrrh under the tree! Which one to choose?
Ho-Toy was first on my route, so I opened the door to find it packed to the gills with members of the tribe of Abraham, being served by Confucians—everybody merry, nobody celebrating Christmas.
My glasses fogged as emotions welled up inside me—or was it the dumplings on the steam table?
I looked around the room with satisfaction. The hostess walked up to me. Table for one? she asked.
“Yes,” I said, and I couldn’t keep a tincture of sadness out of my voice.
“Oh, so sorry,” she said. “You should try buffet, maybe you meet nice people in line.”
“Good idea,” I said. I took off my coat, picked up a plate and got in line behind a short, bearded man wearing a black hat. I guessed he was a rabbi, and I was right.
“Nobody’s eating the pork ribs,” I said to him as he surveyed the fare. “Something wrong with them?”
“Nothing that isn’t prohibited by the Book of Leviticus,” the man said. “You alone for Christmas?” he asked.
“Gotta be tough,” he said as he helped himself to a heaping spoonful of the chicken fried rice. He turned to me, his eyes welling over with ecumenical sympathy. “You can join my family at our table if you’d like.”
“Really? You’d do that for someone whose co-religionists have harassed your people for two millennia?”
“It’s Saturday, and three stars have yet to appear in the sky,” the rebbe said. “We need a shabbas goy to open the fortune cookies.”